With the Jeff Petry saga concluded, it is time for Montreal Canadiens’ general manager (GM) Kent Hughes to focus on the next step of his offseason, shedding of some of the salary cap to help continue with a youth movement.
The turnover on defense demonstrates the new style desired by management. Gone are the days of adding big, lumbering defenders whose goal is to intimidate and out-muscle forwards in front of the net. The new era in Montreal values positioning and mobility to defend, but also to generate offense on transition. This is something a team like Montreal, which is building to play with speed up front, will benefit from.
The Canadiens have a massive surplus of wingers with NHL contracts, and even more still rising in the ranks of their farm system. With a need to shed salary, it is logical to assume that a winger will be used to help the club shed some of the salary cap.
Canadiens’ Cap Sacrifices
Before diving into Hughes’ best options, it is hard to ignore the smoke rising from the trade rumors surrounding Pierre-Luc Dubois with the Winnipeg Jets, especially since he has informed them that he wants to play in Montreal. This places Dubois between a rock (Hughes) and a hard place (Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff). Both GMs have a reputation for waiting for the value in a trade they see as acceptable. But a desire to leave, and not file for arbitration, leaves him open to an offer sheet. This might incentivize Winnipeg to trade him now, or it could make them dig their heels in and wait the two years before he enters unrestricted free agency, particularly due to the uncertainty of the direction the Jets will take, to either rebuild or to try to make a push for the playoffs. But if those rumors do come true, it would mean Hughes must move salary out, making any package offered difficult to predict.
For the Habs, at least one of the following players would need to go in order to create cap space. This is important not only to make space for youth to graduate into the NHL, but also to create the cap room required for the signatures of depth goaltender Samuel Montembeault and, most importantly, for newly acquired centerman Kirby Dach, whose next contract could be close to $3 million.
Hughes has several options available to him that could help relieve the Habs’ cap constraints. There is little doubt he will make another large move this offseason. Who is the likeliest player to go?
Jonathan Drouin’s current contract is entering its final season paying him $5.5 million. The 25-year-old forward will become an unrestricted free agent. The former 2013 third-overall pick is injury prone and is currently on the injured reserve with a wrist injury. The good news is it is supposed to be back to 100 percent by training camp. The bad news is his trade value is at an all-time low.
Any team willing to take on his salary would be getting him at a massive discount. They would need to have the room to maneuver under the cap, but also be in need of a middle-six winger who can help a power play from along the wall. Two teams that could be a fit are the Seattle Kraken and Nashville Predators, maybe even the New Jersey Devils. With Seattle, they would need a veteran to keep the team competitive but also complement their young top-six centers.
With Nashville, they would add Drouin in the hopes he can help their anemic offense and take some of the pressure off Roman Josi to be one of the few generators of offense on that roster. If Drouin doesn’t work out, he can be allowed to walk into free agency. If he does, then a team would have been able to add some depth scoring for the equivalent value of a third-round pick or similarly valued prospect.
One name that most of the Habs’ fan base wants to see traded out of the team seems to be Mike Hoffman. However, if the goal is to shed cap, then he may not be the ideal fit. The reason for that is that his recent performance has not been up to expectations, having scored 15 goals and 35 points in 67 games played. With two years remaining on a deal that pays him $4.5 million per season, it would be difficult to move him out without taking his salary back in return. Even if Hughes could do that, it may take him adding picks or prospects to rid the Habs of his contract, much in the way the Vegas Golden Knights needed to do to drop Max Pacioretty’s salary.
However, if the cost of saving a roster spot and the entire $4.5 million were to be a third-round pick or a third-tier prospect it could be worth it. Teams that could take on that salary and could use some additional scoring are few in the NHL. One such team is the Nashville Predators. With almost $9 million in cap space and a need for a third-line scoring winger for their power play, it would be a low-cost risk for them to take on.
From here, the choices become more difficult for Hughes. Above are players that can easily be replaced, the following players can play key roles in supporting the Canadiens’ youth and keep the team competitive during the rebuild.
Christian Dvorak has three more years remaining at $4.45 million. That is a reasonable price for the 6-foot-1 center that is capable of playing a top-six and penalty-killing role. Because there are several other options to shed cap, it is likely Hughes will only part with him in a “hockey trade” — a trade meant to improve the current roster now, or in the future. There are several teams that have been interested in adding him to their rosters. Two of those teams that could be a fit are the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche. The Canadiens would need to take back some salary, and they would be without a veteran center who can insulate Nick Suzuki and Dach by taking away some defensive assignments. Those two reasons would make moving him out without a significant return difficult to occur.
Josh Anderson has gotten serious interest from rival GMs, and for good reason. He has a rare skill set, a power forward with speed, and an ability to score over 20 goals per season. While that may not be as coveted in the regular season, his physical style becomes an important aspect of any Stanley Cup contending team in the playoffs as he can wear down defenders over a seven-game series. So far, Hughes has resisted the urge to move him out, but with five years remaining at $5.5 million, shedding his salary may help in the short term, but also add assets that can fit with the current core of under-23-year-olds.
Nashville is a team that could take on the entire salary and provides the Canadiens with draft picks and solid prospects such as Zachary L’Heureux and Luke Prokop. Another team that could have an interest is the Los Angeles Kings. He plays a style of hockey that fits well in the Kings’ system, and while they have less space under the cap than the Predators, they could offer value in a trade.
The Canadiens would need to take on salary, someone like Sean Walker; a right-handed, bottom-pairing, puck-moving defenceman earning $2.65 million on an expiring contract would make the cap fit for both teams. He could provide some aid on the Habs’ blue line for the season, and the Kings could add assets that convince Hughes, such as first-round picks and prospects like Samuel Fagemo, a scoring winger who plays a high-tempo style.
Hughes has several options in order to shed cap space, which is good, as it provides him the luxury of patience so as to find the best fit for his long-term plans. No matter who is chosen to be sacrificed for the sake of salary cap space it will not affect the expectations of this team going into the 2022-23 season as they were already expected to finish near the bottom of the league standings. If Hughes wanted a vacation, this summer may not be the time as he has work to do to rebalance the salary cap he inherited in time for the coming season, which is just a couple of months away.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.